1187 Renaissance art & misogyny

Abject Eroticism in Northern Renaissance Art: The Witches and Femmes Fatales of Hans Baldung Grien
by Yvonne Owens

London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020
$108.00 (U.S.)  /  9781784537296

Reviewed by Linda Rogers


Art scholar and feminist Yvonne Owens has turned her gaze to the Northern Renaissance artist, Hans Baldung Grien, who adopted the orthodoxies of a misogynist religion and the style of its emissary painters, early ad men, in the years before Martin Luther nailed his proclamations on the church door. The pictures persist and she reminds us in language that is both scholarly and currently relevant in her loaded title, with “abject” leading us to “limp,” an examination of the impotent origins of original sin and continuing blasphemy.

Northern European art, with its genesis in simple linearity emphasising the vertical aspirations of the spirit, conformed to the impetus of the Italian Renaissance with its sham idolatry of the Virgin, a cynical response to misogyny and adherence to the belief that woman was responsible for the fall, the infrastructure of Catholicism, a new world power aided and abetted by doctrinal artists supporting the status quo that gave them status.

Hans Baldung, Self-Portrait, 1526. Musée des Beaux Arts de Strasbourg

Baldung, an apprentice to the devil, slipped easily into the gestalt of misogyny, woman shapes at once alluring and diabolical, mother the curse, her menses a blasphemy eventually as shameful to Calvinists and American fundamentalists as it was to the Roman priesthood, many of them, we know, still hiding in the lace vestments of sanctity. Owens writes:

With fearful images of death and pulchritude, female genital emissions, imitations of menstrual “vapours,” mortifying glances, polluting gazes and touches, Baldung’s exclusively female witch figures and their sexualized antics both entice and repel the eye.

Baldung, one of three Hanses in the Durer workshop, took the name Grien, because of his proclivity for the colour green, interestingly the colour worn by brides in the Middle Ages, when white was a global colour of mourning. As brides strode from green to white in the popular culture, Owens makes it clear they were not evolving. Green, the promise in spring shoots, gives girls a merciless piety, as it gives way to deathly white. As premenstrual maids, as fecund erotic creatures and as crones, they remain the green apples that corrupt the pure nature of man in nature, just as abused children take the blame for the twisted lust of their abusers, which is in reality conquest.

Hans Baldung, Death and the Maiden, 1509-11. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Image courtesy Wikipedia

White is the death maiden, the corpse in Baldung’s “Death and the Maiden,” iconography that haunts us still, especially as we uncover the unconsecrated bodies of church victimized children.

How did their mothers, medicine women, become witches? Owens explains the simple transference of pollution, disease to menses, foetid feminine fluids and the transformation of cunt, a sacred shape to coarse pejorative, the word parallel to a static perception of women that persists to this day. Just as grievance glues the witless to amoral political leadership, so does misogyny link the faithful to cynical religious practice.

As recently as the later twentieth century, this reader encountered a Chaucer scholar who could not accept that Chaucer’s nun was little more than a whore, her feminist proclamations an abomination of the sanctity of Christ. Owens’ passion erupts through her text, aspirational prose reaching for a sky that balances sun and moon, male and female. She does not wander into contemporary politics, but they announce themselves in her passionate semantics. There is no mistaking her intention. It is easy to see Hillary Clinton hidden in the robes of a Medieval nun or a Renaissance whore.

It interesting to notice the cuneiform shape of Northwest coast coppers the highest icon of a once matriarchal culture transformed to misogyny by the Indian Act. Men literally holding on to feminine power hold up their coppers, symbols of wealth, which female elders know is evidence of their real importance in the culture. So it is with feminist scholars who understand that cunt is the portal to life, its beginning and end, best understood by women. The wise women know, as does Owens, who infuses every word, every page with her passionate awareness of the greater gestalt, a fine balance.

Le Sabbat des sorcières, Hans Baldung Grien, gravure sur bois, 1508-10. From R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004). Courtesy Wikimedia commons

That balance, apparently upset by a full moon and mares with moon-shaped haunches is challenged in Baldung’s preoccupation with the satanic coalition of girls and horses, a persisting phenomenon as young women study themselves in the estrous behaviour of mares, our point of reference as bewildered females confront choices that are rarely honoured. “In ‘The Bewitched Groom,’” Owens observes, “the aged crone is the only witch in evidence. Youthful female seductiveness, ‘looking on with flashing eyes,’ is reserved for the representation of the mare.” As with many of Owen’s feminist precepts, we are left to wonder exactly why our fathers resisted riding lessons, why so many children with hair as long as the manes of wild horses were sacrificed.

We may never know why the painter under consideration had only one child (a daughter to her probable everlasting discomfort) but we might guess from his artistic and religious preoccupations, that he was experiencing the disgust with lady fluids and his own carnal needs that he expressed in his art, porn for future Puritans:

In the gestures, physical properties and general dynamics of his witch figures, Baldung’s affective device made copious use of suggestive visual reference to menstruation to denote the moral, spiritual and ideological pollution of witches and of witchcraft, much as contemporaneous condemnation of apostates heretics or Jews deployed verbal pollution signifiers and the language of taint to libel their subjects.

This, then as now, is where church and state intersect for heinous purposes and our desideratum might be to see this scholarly work translated as a primer for resistance to the misogynist politics of white supremacist movements that pervert the articles of faith that should bend to equal justice for all.

Hans Baldung Grien, Zwei Hexen (two witches). Städel Museum, Frankfurt

The Bloomsbury edition is priced for special collections and scholars of Renaissance art and theology, but this book and its thesis, in which Baldung could be interchanged with so many others, should reach a larger audience, since it addresses the single most important issue in global civilisation. Because all young girls should know what to expect in opposition to their expectations and dreams, a graphic novel about the artist, his wife and daughter, what must have been a household in a religious petri dish, would be educating and empowering, because young women today, with their depillitated genitals and faux eyebrows are still conditioned by advertising as powerful as the religious art of the Counter-Reformation with its hysterical overtures to the disaffected.

Owens, a professor at the Victoria College of Art, is an art historian and a commentator on contemporary feminist politics, a discipline that informs between the lines in this book. Sadly, we are being controlled by a different iteration of the same old narrative, and recent events prove that nothing has changed about the perception of women as dangerous vessels of corruption.

Witness the persecution of crone stereotype of the before mentioned Hillary Clinton, female political candidate brought down by old allegations of child sacrifice amid gas lit cries of witch-hunt from her venal opposition. Witness the so-called catfight between Royal Duchesses and members of the American Legislature. That is enough to intimidate any girl from exercising her human right to lead. Clinton et al., the twenty-first century bitches and witches being interchangeable, prove to a generation of young women that social healing is dangerous business, maybe better left to crones who are dismissed by the post generational agents of Baldung as “crazy old ladies,” than the mad maidens of American witch hunts:

Hans Baldung, Nackte junge Hexe und fischgestaltiger Drache. (Nude young witch and fish-like dragon), 1515. Courtesy Staatliche-Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

The ubiquitous tropes of basilisk, menstrual venom, the magic mirror, the Venomous Virgin, Poisonous Maid or Poison Damsel spread ideas about the “evil eye” in multiple media and are actually concomitant icons, unified in their narrative inception in the lore of Aristotle and Alexander.

We only have to look twice at the illustrations Owens has selected from Baldung’s oeuvre to see the manipulation of classical conventions that supports his inference of a subverted world order, gothic figures reconfigured in chiaroscuro, early Mannerism, Mother Trees transplanted into a fallen garden of phalluses, all her fault, of course, the visual representation of the Roman whore’s seductive puttanesca, pasta with the unmistakable stench of sex: capers, anchovies, garlic, and olives.

Years ago, when we sat in the honey-scented garden of the metaphysical poet and medical doctor Henry Vaughan’s aristocratic mother, who was, like all country women of her class, responsible for dispensing herbal cures and advice to tenant farmers, we felt in the perennials and the wind that blew them, the persistent breath of the goddess of healing. In that garden, we experienced mother and son, both healers, he officially, the fragility of life and the endurance of the garden. This writer was reminded that her own twentieth century father forbade her the practice of medicine and that Vaughan’s mother was known as A Lady, one whose position in her garden of earthly delights was tenuous:

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! Ev’n as the flowers in spring.

Yvonne Owens

The irony of the persistent regeneration of Vaughan’s living apothecary shop and the shibboleths that turned medicine women into evil witches and artists whose mandate was to turn voluptuary figures into heinous creatures, is still deeply felt. Baldung, Owens writes, “unfolds his emblematic, visual parables, to position Woman as Witch, as the inescapable sexual ‘flaw’ by which the self-consciously fallen, helplessly victimized mortal man is compromised, ensnared and brought low as a sort of negative romance.”

Abject Eroticism in Northern Renaissance Art is scholarly in nature but its truths are passionately exploded as the gestalt of ongoing discrimination illuminates every passage. The familiar rebounds in social behaviour and private grief. As every fiction writer using the phenomenal world as resource learns, there is one original story and that is the story of Adam and Eve, concocted no doubt by a man in the name of a male God reflecting on his own Aristotelian insecurities. Owens makes sure we know that as the Latin question arises. Quid nunc? With all this radiant evidence, what do we do next? How do we protect our children from the mistakes of the past as we are once again expelled from the garden of Good and Evil, a planet ruined by patriarchy and greed?


Linda Rogers and Rick Van Krugel. Photo by Darshan Stevens

Linda Rogers, the first public relations chair of the Status of Women Co-ordinating Committee, is a Canadian People’s Poet and author of poetry, fiction, song lyrics, literary criticism and children’s books. She is the current winner of the Carter Vanderbilt Cooper Short Fiction Award and the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize. She is about to publish, under the imprint Studio 123, Mother, the Verb, The Swan Sister Treasure Book, a collection of art and literature by activist women, to which Owens has contributed a performance piece about the martyrdom of Jezebel. Editor’s note: Linda Rogers has also reviewed books by Junie Désil,  Rob Taylor, Andrea Actis, Grace Lau,  Janet Gallant & Sharon Thesen, Philip Resnick, Celeste Nazeli Snowber, Patrick Friesen, Stephen Collis, and Colin Browne; Heidi GrecoLiv AlbertAmanda Hale (Mad Hatter), Howard WhiteEufemia FantettiPatricia Demers, and Amanda Hale (Angela of the Stones) for The Ormsby Review. Her book Crow Jazz (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2018) was reviewed by Paul Headrick.


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